Volume 76, Number 37 | February 7 -13, 2007

Clockwise from above: A page from Seth Tobocman’s upcoming comic strip on New Orleans’s St. Bernard houses; Tobocman’s design for the Mardi Gras public-housing float; a resident who says the St. Bernard project provided a stable home for his children, who all attended college.

Squatter artist draws analogy with N.O. public-housing tenants

By Lincoln Anderson

A veteran chronicler of the Lower East Side squatter battles, radical comic artist Seth Tobocman has been spending time recently in New Orleans documenting public-housing tenants’ struggle to preserve their homes.

Tobocman has focused on St. Bernard project, which New Orleans wants to raze, but which tenants say withstood Katrina undamaged.

“In general, I think the government is very interested in tearing down housing projects,” said Tobocman. However, he said there’s no plan for alternate housing for the displaced residents.

“They’re in shelters all over the country,” he said. “If they aren’t allowed to move back into the projects, they probably won’t be able to move back at all.”

Tobocman spoke during an interview in the Village last week in between trips to New Orleans. Over the past year, he’s spent more than a month there, working trips around his schedule teaching comic art at the School of Visual Arts. The week before, he had been in New Orleans as a handful of St. Bernard tenants had barricaded themselves inside the project’s community center in defiance of the city’s demand to vacate. Yet the city had never obtained a formal eviction order — or even told the tenants they couldn’t return, according to Tobocman. A few days later, police had forcibly removed the tenants — still without an eviction notice — and Tobocman was headed back down — this time to help build a public-housing float he designed for Mardi Gras.

Damage to the low-rise project is superficial, Tobocman said. Made of steel, brick and cement, it’s sturdy. All that’s needed is to clean mold off walls and clear out water-damaged possessions, he said.

“By New Orleans standards, they’re very good,” he noted of the buildings.

The city is suing 10 plaintiffs to keep them from going into the project.

“The first line of defense is that the buildings are damaged,” Tobocman said of the city’s demolition argument. “But that’s so untrue I think they might fall back on saying projects are a high-crime area.”

But Tobocman said much of the crime — like drugs and prostitution — stems from a tourism-based entertainment economy.

“People don’t go to New Orleans to look at the Eiffel Tower. They’re going to party,” he said, “and for many people, ‘party’ involves drugs and alcohol.”

He thinks a better solution could be “something like what they do in Amsterdam with legalizing drugs and prostitution — instead of blaming the people in the projects.”

As for comparing the Lower East Side squatters to New Orleans public-housing tenants, Tobocman said: “Obviously, here we’re a little less anarchistic. We’re trying to stand up for public housing, whereas before we were seizing housing from the government. But it’s the same bottom line — people want a place to live.”

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